Bryan Harsin welcomes pressure of coaching Auburn football. Careful there, coach | Toppmeyer
Eli Drinkwitz held court on a variety of topics during his tour of SEC Media Days last month.
Missouri’s second-year football coach goaded Texas ahead of its move to the SEC, pondering whether a “Horns Down” gesture would result in a penalty in the SEC. He made fun of himself for verbally jabbing at ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit last spring. He needled Arkansas, saying he couldn’t recall the last time Missouri lost to its SEC West rival.
But one thing not even Drinkwitz would do was set expectations for first-year Auburn coach Bryan Harsin, for whom he worked as an assistant at Arkansas State and Boise State.
“I'm not up here to put undue expectations on anybody else. I think the Auburn fan base does that well enough by themselves,” Drinkwitz said.
In answering that way, Drinkwitz alluded to what we know to be true: Harsin stepped into a pressure-cooker job, coupled by a fanbase that isn’t satisfied living in Alabama’s shadow.
Even in the rugged SEC, coaches usually enjoy an initial season with relaxed expectations. Don’t expect Harsin to be granted such a honeymoon.
If Harsin requires a reminder about the pressures of this job, he need only reflect on his two predecessors.
Auburn paid a $21.45 million buyout to fire Gus Malzahn in December. All Malzahn did was compile eight straight winning seasons and beat Nick Saban three times, matching former LSU coach Les Miles for the most victories over Saban during his Alabama tenure. (Malzahn was foiled, in part, by head-scratching losses, such as falling to Tennessee at home in 2018 and losing at South Carolina last season.)
Before Malzahn, Gene Chizik delivered Auburn its second national championship in program history – and first since 1957 – with an undefeated 2010 season. Two years later, Chizik was fired after a 3-9 season.
A few of Harsin’s Auburn predecessors set a high bar for Year 1 success.
Malzahn went 12-2 in his first season, leading the Tigers to a national runner-up finish. Chizik went 8-5 in his debut. And the Terry Bowden era kicked off with an 11-0 record in 1993.
Harsin has never coached in the SEC, or east of the Mississippi River, for that matter. The Idaho native had spent most of his coaching career at Boise State, his alma mater. But he says he understands and embraces the pressures of an Auburn job that several candidates reportedly passed on.
“I know that the microscope is a lot different at Auburn, but that was part of (the appeal), too,” Harsin said. “As a competitor, and I said this, this is why you come to Auburn. This is why you want to be in the SEC.”
Be careful what you wish for.
Harsin compiled a 76-24 record across one season at Arkansas State and seven years at Boise State. But he won’t find Wyoming, Colorado State or Utah State on his 2021 conference schedule.
Instead, he’ll inherit a schedule among the nation’s toughest. A nonconference game at Penn State joins the usual gauntlet of SEC West foes and the annual rivalry game against Georgia, which might feature its best roster of the Kirby Smart era.
Credit Harsin for assembling an impressive staff, highlighted by veteran coordinators Mike Bobo and Derek Mason, both of whom have head coaching experience. And he’s blessed with the SEC’s best running back in Tank Bigsby.
Harsin should win the most games of any of the SEC's four first-year coaches, although that alone won't satisfy the Auburn faithful.
Bringing in an outsider can work in the SEC. There’s no better example than the man with whom Harsin is tasked with competing.
Nick Saban is a West Virginia native who played at Kent State. He’d never had a college job south of Annapolis, Maryland, before LSU hired him ahead of the 2000 season. Saban won a national championship in his fourth season at LSU before adding six more titles at Alabama.
Of course, counterexamples exist. Mississippi State awarded Pittsburgh native Joe Moorhead his first job in the South. He lasted all of two seasons.
And Mississippi State doesn’t have Auburn’s lofty expectations.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.